Bob Marley: The Lion’s Last Roar
Stanley Theater promoters Pat Dicesare and Rick Engler present Marley with a plaque to mark the show’s quick sellout
When Jody Wenig, Marley’s agent, phoned Engler that morning, he remained mum about the tumor, stressing only that Engler should check with Marley as soon as he arrived. Even with him in the building, they were not guaranteeing a performance. It would be up to Marley. When he saw some band members filtering by his office, the promoter headed to the dressing room where Marley was resting on a couch. “I could see that he did not look well,” recalls Engler. “His face was drawn and he looked very, very, very tired. He looked worn out, but I just thought he had a cold. I said, ‘How you feeling?’ He goes, ‘No good, mon. Very, very tired. Not well at all.’ I said, ‘Are you going to play?’ And he said, ‘I probably shouldn’t but I need to do it. I need to do it for my band, they need the money. We’re here, we’re gonna play.’ I said, ‘That’s great, but if you can’t do it, don’t. Don’t push it.’ He said, ‘We’re gonna do it, no problem.’”
While Marley told Engler that he wasn’t going to sound check, he not only joined his bandmates onstage, but he did so for what would also prove to be their longest and most memorable sound check—one in which the proud singer touchingly communicated to his friends what he was feeling without actually having to look them in the eye and say it. Uncharacteristically, says Mowatt, he didn’t speak a word into the mic, sat on the drum riser when not singing and only signaled to bandleader/bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett when he wanted a level tweaked.
“Normally, we would do like one or two songs,” she says, “but this was more like a rehearsal.” Without interacting with the band at all, for a half-hour, the troubled Tuff Gong cycled through “Keep on Moving,” repeating the chorus, Lord, I’ve got to keep on moving / Lord, I’ve got to get on down/ Lord, I’ve got to keep on grooving/ Where I can’t be found. The song choice was extra poignant in its message to his two oldest children: Tell Ziggy I’m fine and to keep Cedella in line.
“It was something that he was feeling,” says Griffiths. “I said to Judy and Rita, ‘Boy, this song has been going for so long,’ and that made us even more concerned. To me, he was looking very stressed. [Guitarist] Junior [Marvin] took a picture with one of those instamatic cameras at sound check, and when the picture came out, it didn’t look like the same person.” It’s curious to note that despite the lengthy sound check of the song, Marley did not perform “Keep on Moving” that evening to a live audience.
Like his bandmates, Marvin’s most vivid memory of the Stanley gig comes not from the performance, but during a moment just before the show: “I saw him looking at himself in the mirror, as if to say, ‘I look okay on the outside, but what’s going on in the inside?’”
Around that time, Engler ducked back into the dressing room, which at that point was filled with band members and ganja smoke. Bob had rested for the previous few hours and seemed reborn. “He had some energy now,” says the promoter. “It seemed like somehow he really rose to the occasion.” Engler presented his hero with a plaque recognizing the show as one of the fastest sellouts in the venue’s history. Marley posed for a photo, holding the plaque, as well as two quick shots on the couch snapped by house photographer Rick Malkin.
Another example of his well-documented generosity, before the show Marley approached the scrappy young Ian Wynter—then pulling triple duty with the Wailers as a cook, roadie and apprentice keyboardist—and informed him that his time had finally come. As Wynter (known these days as Natty Wailer) was stringing a guitar, Marley informed him that tonight, he would finally make his live debut with the Wailers.
I’ve been accused on my mission
Jah knows that you shouldn’t do it
For hangin’ me, they were willin’, yeah
And that’s why I’ve got to get on through
Lord, they’re coming after me
Marley’s physical collapse came just as one of his biggest dreams—to be genuinely embraced by Black America—seemed to be in reach. After thrilling more than a million fans across Europe, Pittsburgh was the fifth date on the U.S. leg of the Uprising tour, which—much to the delight of the Wailers themselves—was supposed to be followed by a 60-date tour opening for Stevie Wonder. Marley was unsatisfied that Uprising had only cracked the top 50 on the Billboard 200 chart. At the time, his only hit on Black radio stations had been the title track off Exodus three years earlier.
Frankie Crocker, of leading New York R&B station WBLS and promoter of the two concerts Marley and the Wailers performed during their stay in Manhattan was working to change that. Over two nights at Madison Square Garden, in what seems like a joke three decades later, the legend opened for Lionel Richie and The Commodores, largely embarrassing the headliners on both nights. With the rumble of Family Man’s bass pinning ensnaring onlookers, Marley and the Wailers robbed the spotlight from the soft rockers on both nights—with estimates of as many as 9,000 (nearly half the arena), emptying at intermission.
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